The Supreme Court of Uganda has refused to declare that the practice of exchanging money, cows, or other goods for a bride is unconstitutional in Uganda, notwithstanding the claim that it reduces the women to mere properties.
However, the Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for a man to have the right to claim a refund from his spouse's family if the marriage ends. Husbands often expect the dowry to be returned in cases of dissolution of the marriage.
The constitutional challenge to the practice was started in part by MIFUMI, a Ugandan organization combating domestic violence and the bride price, with the support of other women's rights organizations.
While the practice itself was not struck down, MIFUMI said it hoped that at least the ban on refunds of bride prices would help women leave abusive relationships.
A bride price is the custom of a groom paying a woman's family with money, cows, land or other material goods in exchange for a wife. The tradition originated as an official recognition of a marriage and as a gift for the bride's family. It was also believed to add value to the woman and protect her from abuse in her new household. The practice remains common in Uganda, particularly in rural communities but also in urban centers. The modern bride price still follows the same principal of exchange, but families are now often asked to sign contracts with the groom as proof of payment of the bride price.
Prior to this decision, if a marriage failed, men could go back to the woman's family home to demand a return of their property. But the Supreme Court in Kampala has ruled, in a majority judgment of 6:1, that the traditional custom and practice of demanding a refund of the bride price if a marriage breaks down is unconstitutional and “dehumanising to women."
“The return of [the] bride price connotes that the woman in marriage was some sort of loan. But even in sale, the cliche is that goods once sold cannot be returned or goods once used cannot be refunded. If that cannot be done in respect to common goods like cows, why should it be applied to a woman in marriage?” asked Justice Bart Katureebe.
Across sub-Saharan Africa – from Malawi, to Zambia to Kenya and South Africa – the practice of paying a bride price is quite common. In Kenyan pastoral communities, it is paid in the form of cattle and has been blamed for rampant cattle rustling.
The practice is particularly entrenched among some Ugandan ethnic groups, especially in western, east and northern areas of the country. The negotiations over payment take place between male representatives of the two families – women are not allowed to take part.
Critics say paying a bride price can trap women in abusive marriages and encourages early marriage.
According to United Nations figures, an estimated 40% of girls in Uganda are married before they are 18, with eastern and northern Uganda registering the highest number of child marriages. A major reason for the high number is understood to be because parents, particularly poorer parents, want to get the bride price.
In June last year, the eastern Uganda district of Butaleja passed its own law making it illegal to demand refund of the bride price, or to deny a woman burial on account of non-payment of the bride price by the man. The ruling was initiated by MIFUMI.